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Home > Treks > Kinabalu > Day 4 > 4.2
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Staircase to the Checkpoint in the Sky

Staircase to the Checkpoint in the Sky

IT WAS cold outside. It wasn’t bitterly cold, but cold enough not to want to stand around for any length of time. We all turned on our head lamps and performed a few warm up stretches for the long hike ahead. I was very nervous, having never done a night climb before, and having never been at this altitude before. A sickening feeling went through my stomach.

There was quite a crowd outside the hut now, all getting ready to start climbing with their guides. Some groups had already left. If they go at a good pace, then they will have a long cold wait at the top for the sunrise. I double checked I had everything with me. The SLR camera had been packed into my day back. It would be too hazardous to do the summit climb carrying it around my neck as I had done yesterday. I had my small camera in my pocket ready to take pictures on the way up. At night the quality won’t be much different between the cameras, I’d have more success with the small camera, plus it will be a lot quicker. There was no time to afford with fiddling with a large camera up here.

Climbing the endless staircase in the dead of night
Climbing the endless staircase in the dead of night

The starry sky above didn’t seem so bright now with all the head lamps turned on. I find stars are like glow worms. If you shine a light on them they go dim. If you leave them alone in the total darkness they shine bright. Stars are the same.

Sapinggi led the way along a gravel path through thick scrubby undergrowth. The vegetation was covered in drops of water still wet from the rain of yesterday afternoon – that had only been a few hours ago. The path only lasted a couple of minutes though before stopping at the start of a wooden staircase.

I started climbing the stairs, slowly following the boots of the person in front of me. Pelan pelan. This one was even steeper than any of the staircases I had climbed yesterday, and the stairs seemed to be suspended in mid-air. The stair cases clung to rocks on our right, and seemed quite high above the ground below us – a good metre or two. Once we were up one staircase, it abruptly turned right around a bluff to continue up the next suspended set of stairs.

The sickness in my stomach was turning into nausea. Now what did I do with my nausea tablets? I think I had left them in my main pack at the bottom of the mountain. Drat. There’s nothing I can do about that now except to will myself to keep my breakfast in my stomach – the breakfast I didn’t want in the first place.

Following the rope in single file
Following the rope in single file

Everyone was very quiet as we shuffled single file as a slow moving row of lights all heading through the thinning forest towards the top. I couldn’t see very far in front of me as the staircase continued winding around bluffs and bush. I dared not look back as I was already dizzy from vertigo. It was scary enough negotiating each step from one wooden plank to the next one with the ground being at least a metre below me. One misplaced step and I’m history.

We stopped occasionally. To my surprise I now felt rather warm, necessitating the unzipping of the front of my polar fleece top. Although the air was very cold, I was sweating under my clothes. Without any thermal shirt underneath, I didn’t want my tee shirt to get wet, especially in the chill of the summit. Fortunately there was no wind at all here, but I knew it would be a very different story at the top.

A dull headache was starting to form now, but thankfully the nausea was starting to subside.

The stairs suddenly stopped and I found myself walking on solid rock. The trees suddenly became very stunted and sparse. Looking ahead everyone had slowed down a little to form a short queue. Then I saw a rope heading across the face of a rock heading diagonally upwards. This must be the rope climb I had been dreading.

I reached the rope and grabbed onto it, following the next person in front of me and sidling along heading up. The rope was actually a relief as I no longer had to make a conscious effort to maintain my balance unaided in the steep dark terrain. The rope felt cold to my hands. My gloves were still in my pockets, but now I was wishing I had them on. I sidled along the rope, edging my way along a narrow granite ridge just five centimetres wide under my boots. My cold knuckles began to scrape against the rough granite to the point they drew blood. Granite is a very hard abrasive rock to scrape ones knuckles against. It didn’t help with the rope constantly moving with all the people in front and behind me heading across the steep rock face.

I climbed along the side of a worn pegmatite crevice in the rock. Then the rope turned around a large eyelet screwed into the rock. I pulled myself up and followed the rope now heading straight up the hill. I followed it up crossing over more bare rock. By now the forest had been reduced to small stunted trees, making it feel a lot more exposed up here than it had further below.

At the treeline at 3653m ASL
At the treeline at 3653m ASL

The rope climb suddenly ended and we were walking along granite rubble along the side of a gully. Beside the track was a marker like the ones we had seen yesterday. This one was at seven kilometres from the start of the track indicating an altitude of 3653 metres. This marked the limit of the forest. I had seen tree lines in New Zealand, but these were at a much lower altitude because New Zealand is in a cold temperate zone. There the bush line ranges from nine hundred metres above sea level in the lower South Island to about twelve hundred metres above sea level in the middle North Island. Here it was well over three and a half thousand metres.

Checkpoint at Sayat Sayat
Checkpoint at Sayat Sayat

I looked ahead of me and saw amongst the row of headlamps a dim light that wasn’t moving. It was the light through a window up ahead. How strange it was to see a hut perched so high up the mountain. I continued walking up through the scrub towards the hut. It was the very small hut of Sayat Sayat perched on the top of a large rock, and there was someone inside. We entered a small gate beside the hut. The gate is locked in the late afternoon when the last climbers have come down, and gets unlocked at about one thirty in the morning unless the weather is bad. If the weather is bad, the gate remains locked preventing anyone from passing.

We briefly waited at the gate while our guides Sapinggi and Lianty both registered their details. We were standing next to a large scrubby bush with white flowers.

We passed through the gate where I could see a silhouette of a man with a dim light behind him. He checked my pass, made a quick note in his large notebook, and then waved me on to head up the mountain.

It was official - I was deemed crazy enough to be worthy of a summit attempt here in the dead of night.

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19 May 2010


Mount Kinabalu



3273 - 3675m ASL


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